Leader Spotlight: Jeff Watkins, High School Teacher

A few weeks ago my wife and I attended a wedding for one of her college friends. Aside from the beautiful ceremony, the delicious food and the oh-so-thrilling dancing, the conversation with new people was one of my favorite parts of the night.

I had met Jeff a couple of years ago, but hadn’t talked to him again until the wedding. I was able to sit next to him at the dinner table, which made our game of catch-up easy. We talked about all sorts of things, but it was when he began telling me about his career that I realized he is an amazing leader with a true passion for what he does.

Please read about Jeff’s outlook on leadership and his career as a teacher.

Q: Why did you become a teacher?

A: It was pure happenstance. I had planned to serve at my school via AmeriCorps for a year and then move on to bigger and better things. But, after working closely with my group of students, I fell in love with the school and the kids, and I’ve been here ever since.

Q: Where do you teach? What kind of school is it? What subject?

A: I teach at Pritzker College Prep, a charter high school on the west side of Chicago. Pritzker belongs to the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which is the largest charter network in Chicago. We primarily serve inner city students, some well below the poverty line. The kids who come to us want a selective school education, but can’t afford the cost. Pritzker has a student body made up of about 800 students. We’re 97% Latino, and 95% free or reduced school lunch. We’ve also got one of the highest ACT scores in the city, including selective schools.

I’ve had a different position every year here at Pritzker. First, I was an AmeriCorps aid, then the in-house substitute teacher, then the Senior Reading teacher, and now I teach Public Speaking and Debate. Speech and debate have always been passions of mine, and when there was an opening to start up my own elective, I jumped on it. We’re about at the halfway point for the year, and I’ve had a blast building the curriculum.

Q: Have you always wanted to teach? How long have you been teaching?

A: I had thought about teaching once in college, but was quickly turned off by the idea when I thought about my high school experience. My teachers weren’t bad; they were overworked. Most had been in education for 30+ years, and they had obviously lost the spark. I couldn’t see myself as a middle-aged man who was burnt out by a system that pushed me to my breaking point. But, when I came to work for the Noble Network, I was beyond enthused to see so many energetic people who were passionate about the work they were doing. It completely changed my outlook on the field.

I’ve been teaching in one form or another for four years.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?

A: Aside from the kids, I really enjoy the autonomy that I get as an educator. My admin team trusts me to do the job they hired me for, and they know that I’m going to do my best. It’s such a relief to finally work at a place that has confidence in my abilities and lets me achieve the school and network goals in the best way I see fit.

Q: Which leadership skills do you think you use the most when teaching?

A: I’m an Eagle Scout, and the biggest thing I learned in my time with the BSA is to lead by example. If I want my students to enter my classroom ready to go, then I too have to be ready to go. If I want my advisory to become kind and patient with others, then I have to demonstrate those assets in my actions with them. Whenever I come across a situation that I’m not sure how to handle, I often ask myself what I would want my students to do if they were in my shoes. It’s a rule of thumb that I’ve always tried to live by.

Q: What motivates you to do the best you can at your job?

A: This one’s easy: it’s equal parts the staff I work with and the students I teach. I’m surrounded by faculty that continually put everything they have into their craft. They live and breathe education, and their motivation and energy are contagious.

And my students are what make me get out of bed in the morning. Sure, there are some who grind my gears more than others, but I absolutely love coming to work every day and seeing their progression through life, both as students and people.

Q: Which leadership skills do you think all teachers should have?

A: If I had to boil them down to a few, I would say: patience, fairness, consistency, optimism, and perseverance. I don’t think I could rank them in importance though.

Q: What have you learned as a teacher? Have the students “taught” you anything?

A: Teaching has taught me the importance of having a fully thought out reason for everything I do. When you’re in charge of 200+ kids, it’s vital to have a clear line of logic for your actions. Otherwise, kids will nitpick with you to oblivion.

The students have taught me many things, not the least of which is how to “Dougie” (though I’m still really, really bad at it). In all seriousness, they’ve taught me that any action, no matter how small, can have a tremendous impact on a person’s life.

Q: What do you consider your number one goal as a teacher to be? Do you feel that you’re satisfying that goal? Do you have any long-term goals?

A: My number one goal is to help make good people. I’m a big believer in Auguste Comte’s theory that public schools can make moral students. When I say moral, I don’t mean a particular religion or level of purity. I mean students who are kind, who are respectful of others, who understand the value of human life and that we all deserve basic human decency. Though I haven’t been in education long, I feel like I’m satisfying this goal.

Q: Is there one person in particular whom you look up to as a leader? How has he/she made a difference in your life?

A: I’ve been fortunate enough to live a life that is full of great leaders, and I’ve learned so much from all of them. My mind keeps going back to my scout leader, Keith Mueggenborg. The man was unorthodox, to say the least, but he taught me the importance of taking initiative. If I was cold on a campout, then I had to build a fire. If I wanted a merit badge, it was my responsibility to figure it out. Keith threw us to the wolves when it came to scouting, and I believe that it helped to make me the man I am today.

jeff image

It was easy for me to realize that Jeff is undoubtedly making a difference is his students’ lives, and it will be just as easy for his students to realize it. Jeff is more than a teacher. He’s an influencer. A game-changer. Public education is highly discussed and debated in this country. In my opinion, it’s not just about the education. It’s about the educators.

I was fortunate enough to have a few teachers in school that I consider friends to this day. I would like to use this opportunity to thank them.

  1. Brooke Harman- My 8th and 12th grade English teacher.
  2. Scott Thornberry- Health, Physical Education and my Track & Field/ Cross Country coach.
  3. Merle Russo- Foreign Language (Spanish and French)

All three people above have taught me lessons that I use well beyond the classroom. They showed me (in one way or another) that they cared about my education as well as my future.  I’m lucky to have such role models in my life.

Is there someone who has made a difference in your life? If so, you should let that person know. It’s never to late to thank them, and it just might make their day to hear from you.

Thanks for reading!

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